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Decentralization Reforms: The Lessons From South Asia
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: 20th April 2002

The author is part of a group which has just completed a study of Decentralization Reforms in South Asian countries. Our book being published by Zed Press, London is titled: Pro Poor Growth and Governance in South Asia - Case Profiles of Participatory Development and Decentralization Reforms. This brief article reports some of the findings of the book.


Almost every country in South Asia has undertaken decentralization reforms with the stated purpose of empowering the poor and thereby achieve good governance. Yet the implementation of these reforms indicate the pitfalls of decentralization. Unless they are addressed at an early stage, decentralization could intensify rather than alleviate the oppression of the poor. As Pakistan embarks on its own strategy of devolution, it may be useful to point out some of the lessons learned from the experience of other countries of South Asia.

In this article we will first examine the contrasting forms in which the elite and the poor constitute power. We will then highlight some of the lessons learned from the case studies of Decentralization in South Asia.


The ruling elite with rare exceptions, practice a form of power that is counterposed to that used by the poor. The power of the elite is constituted by creating a sense of powerlessness in their subjects: internal relationships of fraternal loyalty and support within the community are ruptured, and the individual isolated and made dependent on the economic and social support emanating out of elite power. In this way the poor are made dependent on the patronage of the elite. The basis of seeking patronage by the dependents is the fear that comes from being isolated and powerless. The exercise of this form of power, involves constriction of the space for autonomous initiatives by the dependents. Therefore the power of the patron is predicated on the loss of freedom of the clients. This dialectic is fuelled by the assertion of the patron's ego drained of any sense of relatedness with the other.

By contrast the poor communities in South Asian countries are imbued with a folk tradition where the process of actualizing the self is experienced as a transcendence of the ego and progressive integration with the community. Empowerment of the poor involves a reintegration with their community as much as with their inner self. It is therefore an awakening of the nascent counter consciousness of love, relatedness and creative action.

In contrast to the power nexus of the elite, when the poor are empowered the isolation of the individual is replaced by integration with the community. This relatedness with the other and with the inner self creates a sense of freedom and opens the space for autonomous initiatives by the poor. This is in contrast to their earlier condition of isolation and fear. Empowerment for the poor signifies relatedness, freedom and autonomous action.


Four major lessons emerge from the case studies of South Asian countries:

Lesson No. 1

Formal decentralization of administrative power in itself does not necessarily help the poor as Shri Krishna Upadhyay points out in the context of the Nepal case study. Empowerment of the poor, he argues, requires that formal decentralization be accompanied by a rigorous process of social mobilization. This involves consciousness raising, conscientisation and building organisations of the poor. It is only such a process that will enable the poor to acquire countervailing power. Without this dimension of countervailing power, decentralization will merely result in the appropriation by elites of the "fruits of decentralization for their own narrow benefit". In this context the Bangladesh case study by Dr. Shaikh Maqsood Ali makes an important distinction between decentralization of administrative power in favour of its regional/local offices as opposed to decentralization in favour of the local people. Apart from this it could be argued that in areas where asymmetric structures of power prevail (for example, coalitions of rich peasants/landlord, local influentials such as traders, revenue and police officials) mere decentralization of administrative power could intensify the oppression of the poor.

In the case of the otherwise successful Kerala experiment in India discussed by Dr. Madhu Subramanian where the Peoples Plan Campaign could not fulfill its potential of empowering the poor and achieving pro poor growth, because social mobilisation was not rigorously conducted. The efforts at mobilisation, by various local government institutions have been "largely mechanical and in a top down fashion that only served to maintain or further the patron client relationship between the local government functionaries and the poor."

Lesson No. 2

The second lesson emerging from the case studies is that if decentralization is to enable empowerment of the poor, it must be holistic. i.e. Incorporate political power, enhanced confidence, emergence of social consciousness and administrative and fiscal devolution. At the same time it must reach down to the grass roots level through various intermediate levels, with institutionalized participation of the poor in governance at every level. Upadhyay refers to this holism and multi layered devolution in the Nepal case study while Dr. Subramanian refers to "organic" associations of the poor which have engendered growth with dignity and a humane set of values.

Lesson No. 3

The political dimension of decentralization must be inclusive and capable of absorbing what Upadhyay calls "diverse ethnic and other identity groups as equal partners occupying spaces in the polity". He argues that the centralized polity excludes such identities which may be a factor in ethnic strife and social polarization. While the poor once organized are able to generate new resources at the local level yet, as participatory development is scaled up internally generated resources may be insufficient. Therefore externally generated resources become necessary but these have to be carefully applied through a sensitive support system that strengthens rather than weakens the autonomy of the organisations of the poor. Such a Support System could be provided by a combination of apex NGOs, state institutions, banks and local governments. Upadhyay's emphasizes the importance of such support organisations being sensitized by a pro poor perspective.
Dr. Shaikh Maqsood Ali in the Bangladesh case study emphasizes the importance of the poor being accepted as efficient users of resources by the government if devolution of power to the poor takes place within the institutional structure of the government. Upadhyay, in the Nepal case study emphasizes in the same context, the importance of providing external funding through an institutionalized mechanism that meets the diverse needs of the poor. Such a mechanism could provide a continuous source of funding support for the development needs of those organisations of the poor which have a proven performance on the ground.

Lesson No. 4

In the case of urban areas it appears that communities who have developed their own funds and managed development themselves are able to establish a more equitable relationship with local government institutions and in some cases can even take up some of its functions. This is brought out in Pakistan's case study by Arif Hassan. He argues that to enable urban communities to manage their own development it is necessary to provide technical advice and managerial guidance on the one hand and on the other for governments to desist from undertaking development which the local community is conducting on its own.

The issue of resources for urban community based initiatives is brought out in the Ahmedabad case study by Amitabh Kundu and Debolina Kundu. They argue that following decentralization under the seventy third and the seventy fourth constitutional amendments in India in 1992, a few large cities like Ahmedabad with a strong economic base have been able to mobilize additional financial resources through local bodies in order to undertake infrastructural projects. This however has not been possible in the case of most small and medium sized towns in India. Most of the small towns with their weak economic base have not been able to mobilize adequate financial resources either through new local taxes or through floating bonds in the capital market. Consequently the disparity in terms of infrastructure for development between small and large towns is likely to increase under these circumstances.


On the basis of the country case studies in our forthcoming book it is possible to propose that if the poor are to be empowered the decentralization currently being undertaken by a number of South Asian countries cannot simply be seen in terms of a decentralization of administrative functions within existing governance structures. Rather, decentralization has to create the space within which an institutionalized relationship can begin between autonomous organisations of the poor and various tiers of local government. Similarly pro poor growth cannot simply be seen in terms of provision of basic services to the poor or even employment and consumption goods through centralized administrative structures of government, or "safety nets". Pro poor growth it is proposed would involve building organisations of the poor, and unleashing their creative potential through which the poor can initiate actions for increasing incomes, savings and investment for a sustained process of localized capital accumulation. This perspective on pro poor growth and decentralization for empowering the poor would engender a more equitable process of both economic growth and governance.

Biographical Note

Dr. Akmal Hussain

He has authored/co-authored ten books on economic policy. He has helped establish institutions for poverty alleviation and participatory development at the village level, provincial and national levels. He has also contributed to Pakistan's Macro economic policy as an independent economist. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, adjunct faculty at LUMS and member Board of Governors of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (Islamabad) and the South Asian Centre for Policy Studies (Dhaka).

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